Cyberbullying: Going Beyond Traditional Bullying
By Terry Sereda
Traditional bullying usually occurs in social interactions such that the perpetrator and the target are face-to-face (Faucher, p.2). This allows for the perpetrator to see their target and the effects of their harmful behaviour on the target. Additionally, the target can see their adversary, thus can identify the perpetrator, and additionally this also allows the potential for the target to immediately confront the perpetrator and stop the behaviour. As well, these social interactions and reactions to the behaviour (emotions arising from the hurtful behaviour for the target) may occur on a momentary time frame. Thus, these spatial and temporal orientations can be considered to be the constraints of traditional bullying.
Through the use of ICTDs (information and communication technologies and devices, (D’Cruz & Noronha, p.325), these traditional constraints have been removed from cyberbullying (CB). Thus, these devices allow a bully to have the same social interaction, i.e., bullying, but without the traditional face-to-face interaction (Washington, p.21). This has implications for the perpetrator. It has been suggested that, “It is easier to harm others when their suffering is not visible and when destructive actions are physically and temporally remote from their injurious effects.”, (Bandura, 2002, p.108). In traditional bullying, a perpetrator may see the harmful effects of their behaviour, (e.g., they can see the distress that they have caused for the target) and in my opinion, this may provide an inhibitor for the bullying behaviour. If a perpetrator observes the harm they have caused to their target (through various emotions of the target), the perpetrator may experience a negative emotion, e.g., guilt, remorse or shame. These negative emotions potentially could be inhibitors for bad behaviour. Cyberbullying affords the perpetrator the luxury of not observing the harmful effects of their behaviour on the target, thus, there is a diminished potential for the perpetrator to feel negative emotions associated with their bad behaviour, thereby, making it easier for the perpetrator to proceed with harmful behaviour.
Furthermore, in traditional bullying, the bully and the target interact in situations in which both are in the same social sphere (i.e., not physically remote but spatially near to one another), e.g., a manager and a subordinate in the workplace or two students going to the same school. In cyberbullying, that restraint is no longer there, a perpetrator can target a person from any place and any time (Washington, p.25). Thus, in traditional bullying, a target may be apprehensive about being in those social situations where bullying has occurred. In cyberbullying, the attacks could come at any place or any time. With respect to cyberbullying, it has been suggested that “the unpredictability and uncontrollability of such threats arouse generalized anxiety” (references as cited in Bandura, 2016, p.40). This suggests that traditional bullying may cause apprehension in certain situations, but with cyberbullying, one might feel apprehensive all the time, not knowing when the next cyber-attack could occur, especially for those who are very dependent on their electronic devices.
Further to the temporal nature of traditional bullying, these social interactions and reactions (the hurtful effects of bullying) occur in a moment. Thus, the perpetrator knows immediately that they are causing harm to another person. With cyberbullying, this temporal orientation is different, i.e., the perpetrator does not get instantaneous feedback regarding the emotions of the target, thus, this lag in time may make them feel as if they are not doing harm. Furthermore, even if the target does respond to the attacks of a perpetrator, there could be a lag in time, e.g., the target may not know what to think of the message or know how to respond to the message. Thus, the greater the duration of time lapsed for the perpetrator before the knowledge of the harmful effects of their bad behaviour, the less likely the perpetrator will feel that they are doing harm to the target.
Another aspect of cyberbullying is the target may not know the identity of the perpetrator (Washington, p.22), or at the very least, do not know the true identity of the bully (a perpetrator may create a false identity or pretend to be someone other than who they really are, which is termed “catfishing”). This cover of anonymity may lower the accountability of the perpetrator and make it easier for the perpetrator to act inappropriately, because the perpetrator has separated themselves from the outcomes of their actions (D’Cruz & Noronha, p. 340). In my opinion, this is similar to the suggestion that “it is easier to harm others when their suffering is not visible”, thus, diminishing the sense of responsibility for the bully. Additionally, within the context of cyberbullying, it has been suggested that “not knowing the identity of one’s attacker leaves the victim in a heightened state of apprehension about who is friend or foe” (Bandura, 2016, p. 40). This is in contrast to traditional bullying, wherein the target would know the perpetrator because of the face-to-face type of interaction, compared to a faceless interaction in cyberbullying.
Another aspect of cyberbullying relates to social-sanctions. In traditional face-to-face bullying, there may be many bystanders who can be a witness to the bullying behaviour, i.e., this form of bullying occurs in a social sphere where there are others, e.g., fellow students or employees. In cyberbullying, the technology allows the perpetrator access to just their target, e.g., a personal e-mail or text message, thus, just between the bully and the target (D’Cruz & Noronha, p.340). There is obviously overlap between traditional bullying and cyberbullying in this respect, e.g., a supervisor may invite an employee into the office and bully them in an environment where there are no witnesses. In the case of cyberbullying, the perpetrator may include others in the electronic communication through group e-mails, text messages or blogs (D’Cruz & Noronha, p.340). Having said that, I feel that electronic devices allow perpetrators easy access to their targets, i.e., it is much easier to send off an electronic message to a target than it is to isolate a target in traditional social spheres, such as the workplace or in schools. In traditional bullying, with the possibility of there being bystanders, there comes the possibility of social sanctions for the perpetrator, i.e., bystanders may not approve of the perpetrators actions, thus, the perpetrator may feel pressure from their peers (i.e., perpetrators may be sanctioned by their peers). Because of easy access to a target through electronic means, cyberbullying may afford the perpetrator a lesser chance of there being bystanders, i.e., if the message is only between the perpetrator and the target; furthermore, the target would have to forward the message to others in order for there to be bystanders and a social sanction effect. A further avenue of social sanctions relates to the following suggestion “cloaked in the anonymity afforded by the Internet, people say cruel things that they would never dare say publically”, (Bandura, 2016, p.39). Thus, a perpetrator would not say something publically that would result in social sanctions from their peers, therefore, they use anonymous means through electronic communications to ensure that this form of sanction, by their peers, has a lesser chance of happening.
It has been suggested that cyberbullying is more devastating than traditional bullying because of the breath of audience and anonymity afforded to the cyber-bully by ICTDs (Washington, p. 24). I feel that the statement: “It is easier to harm others when their suffering is not visible and when destructive actions are physically and temporally remote from their injurious effects.”, augments that statement—ICTDs physically and temporally separate the perpetrator from the harmful effects that they cause, i.e., it is not face-to-face as in traditional bullying and using the internet does not allow the perpetrator to immediately see the psychological hurt (through emotions) that they have caused their victims. Thus, it is easier for a perpetrator to bully a target through electronic devices than it is through traditional face-to-face bullying.
Bandura, (2002), Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency, Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), p.108.
Bandura, (2016), Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement, Chapter 1, Bullying and Cyberbullying, pp. 37-40, in Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves, Worth Publishers, New York.
D’Cruz & Noronha, (2013), Navigating the extended reach: Target experiences of cyberbullying at work, Information and Organization, 23, 324-343.
Faucher, Jackson & Cassidy, (2014), Cyberbullying among university students: Gendered experiences, impacts and perspectives, Education Research International, Volume 2014, Article ID 698545,
Washington, (2015), An overview of cyberbullying in higher education, Adult Learning, 26(1), 21-27.